MINISTERS OF REFORM: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 1889-1920 by Robert M. Crunden

MINISTERS OF REFORM: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 1889-1920

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Much strong subtle writing has been done on the intellectual history of the Progressive Era, and on the background and outlook of the Progressive ""type""--by Henry May, Richard Hofstadter, Christopher Lasch, and others. This work, however, is designed to demonstrate a narrow, shallow thesis, laid out on the first page of the Preface, which depends in turn on a sampling of ""typical"" Progressives, explained in the concluding Methodological Note; in between is almost nothing of independent interest. Professor Crunden (American Civilization, U. of Texas) construes Progressivism, wanly, as ""a climate of creativity within which writers, artists, politicians, and thinkers functioned . . . they shared moral values and agreed that America needed a spiritual reformation to fulfill God's plan in the New World."" The moral component of Progressivism is universally recognized--but so, by others, are additional strands--as well as the diversity within that moral realm, Crunden sets himself to prove, constrictingly, that Progressives (born between 1854 and 1874)had a common life-experience: all, that is, ""absorbed the severe, Protestant moral values of their parents and instinctively identified those values with Abraham Lincoln, the Union and the Republican Party."" The ministry was no longer viable; they ""demanded useful careers that satisfied demanding consciences,"" ""groped toward professions such as social work, journalism, academia, the Law, and politics,"" and they became ""preachers urging moral reform on institutions as well as on individuals."" Most, too, suffered severe emotional stress. The succeeding chapters then variously put 21 selected Progressives (J. Addams, J. Dewey, TR, W. Wilson, W. Jennings Bryan, among them) through these paces, suggesting that what they did somehow constituted not only progressive sociology, economics, etc., but also progressive music (Charles Ives), progressive art (John Sloan), and progressive architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright). Two late chapters then give us an example of progressive legislation, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and ""the last creative achievement of progressivism,"" the League of Nations Covenant--the doing of Presbyterian minister's son Woodrow Wilson. If every Progressive had been the offspring of a Protestant minister, all this would still be pretty silly (Protestant ministers' offspring were ubiquitous achievers); but in fact Crunden has simply given the label of ""urban liberal"" to those--like Herbert Croly and Louis Brandeis--who weren't. (He's keeping them for another book.) Empty pretentiousness.

Pub Date: Sept. 3rd, 1982
Publisher: Basic Books